Open wide: Gulping gazelles for dinner

Q. How does a python, half the size of a gazelle, manage to swallow it whole? How long does the meal last? ­Henry VIII

A. Warning: gross snake gastronomy ahead.

Needle-like teeth in elastic-muscled wide-hinging jaws fix the prey in place, as saliva greases it for the big swallow, says Curator of Herpetology F. Wayne King of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

A python swallowing a gazelle starts at its nose, and as the gazelle is engulfed, its legs fold naturally and lay along its sides, a "bolus bullet." It may take several minutes for the food to pass from mouth to throat to gut, which expands as needed because while there are ribs, there is no rib cage. A special trachea hookup allows the snake to pause, take a breath or two, and return to swallowing without choking.

A meal the size of a gazelle might take a week or more to digest, then the snake sinks into a low-metabolic torpor and doesn't need to eat again for a few months, says King.

But the python's no glutton. "By the time it eats again," says James Kalat in Biological Psychology, "your own total food intake will be larger than the snake's."

Q. With each new generation seemingly taller than the one before, where might we humans be in 100 years, or 1000? Will we need bigger clothes, bigger beds, bigger cars? Or are there limits to this? ­ J. & M. Hingeley

A. Limits, you bet, says University of Chicago organismal biologist and anatomist Michael LaBarbera. While it's true average heights have gone up in the last 150 years, probably due to better nutrition (in terms of balanced diets, not caloric intake), folks in North America and Europe at least have probably just about peaked out.

In fact, Nature imposes a fundamental stature-cap: Mammals in general load their bones to about a quarter of their breaking strength during routine activities. If you doubled height, bone cross-sectional area would increase fourfold (radius squared), while weight (volume) increases eightfold (2 x 2 x 2)! Our bones would be overloaded, and breaks would be commonplace.

Bad as this sounds, things would actually be even worse, says LaBarbera: 12-foot-tall humans would be prone to collapsed arches, bad knees, and excruciating back problems; 18-foot tall humans would be immobilized.

So, height limits, absolutely. But fat chance we've already peaked in body girth.

Q. A friend who's down on his luck asks: Know any proven strategies for lucrative panhandling? ­Rochelle G.

A. Hit the sidewalk on a sunny day, try to make eye contact, and "seed" the pan (suggestibility). If possible, stand outside a bakery or movie theater showing a comedy, because pleasant smells and light levity boost generosity, say Robert Baron et al. in Social Psychology.

Then there's the "pique technique": When test subjects asked passersby "Can you spare any change?" or "Can you spare a quarter?," only half contributed; but this jumped to three-quarters with "Can you spare 17 cents?" or "Can you spare 37 cents?" Presumably the targets' curiosity was piqued "Why 17 cents? What's the money for?"– jarring them out of their usual automatic refusal "script."

Finally, when John T. Malloy, author of Dress for Success, panhandled during rush hour in downtown New York, he at first wore suit but no tie, then suit-'n-tie. In both cases he used, "I'm embarrassed to ask but I forgot my wallet and need bus money home." Tieless, he collected $7.23 in an hour; neck bedecked, he bagged $26, and one guy offered extra money for a newspaper on the bus ride home.

Q. Flipping a coin usually yields around 50-50 heads and tails. But what if you spin the coin instead? ­A. Hamilton

A. Many spun coins also show 50-50, but others go strongly one way or the other, 65-35 or more, due to weight imbalances. If you secretly pretest a few coins, then bet on them at a party, you should have little trouble pinching a few pennies from the unsuspecting.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.